Understand the Differences Between a Co-op, Internship

It’s not enough to go to college and get good grades. Many employers expect students to graduate with relevant work experience.

“For entry-level positions postgraduation, employers are really looking for a year’s worth of full-time experience going into that first position,” says Heather Maietta, associate vice president of career and corporate engagement and director of the O’Brien Center for Student Success at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. That can equal out to about 1,000 hours throughout a student’s undergraduate career, she says.

[Take these three steps to build in-demand job skills at college.]

Cooperative education programs, commonly referred to as co-ops, and internships both provide students with the opportunity to gain work experience in their career fields.

While some employers and institutions use the terms interchangeably, there can be significant differences between the two.

Prospective college students should know if their university or potential major requires students to complete a co-op or internship. Some schools don’t have structured co-op programs. Students who are interested in participating in a co-op should research school policies and programs before they commit to a university. Knowing the differences between the two can help students who have the option pick the choice that best supports their education and career goals.

Students who participate in co-ops stop taking classes to work full time. Co-ops are typically paid and last anywhere from three to 12 months. Universities with required co-op programs usually expect students to complete at least two — sometimes three — practical learning experiences, experts say.

As a result, students are out of class and working for at least a full school year over the course of their college career.

[Check out these top colleges for internship and co-op programs.]

Internship programs can offer a lot more flexibility for students. Internships can be paid or unpaid, shorter and done in the summer when students are out of school. Students who choose to do internships during the school year usually work part time so they can still take classes.

“There are some students who are very interested in graduating in four years, so they’ll do internships in the summertime, each of the three summers between their academic years,” Merrimack’s Maietta says.

Tatum Hartwig, a junior and communications studies major at Northeastern University, is on a five-year track but will graduate with more than 18 months of work experience in public relations and communications. Hartwig has completed two paid six-month co-ops and plans to do another one through the fall semester.

Co-ops provide students with a more in-depth and extensive work experience, which can give students an edge over their peers, experts say.

Because students invest more time in co-ops, they can provide a significant contribution to an organization, which can include working on big projects — unlike interns, who only work 10 or 12 hours a week over the course of two or three days, says Robbin Beauchamp, director of cooperative education and career services at Wentworth.

Hartwig, who works part time as an intern at Northeastern’s career center, agrees.

“You do feel like you’re missing a piece and you feel a little out of the loop, compared to when I was on co-op and I was an integral team member,” she says.

That doesn’t mean that internships aren’t good.

“Depending on the field that you’re working in, it is possible to get a sense of a certain aspect of the career field in a short amount of time,” says Larissa Fergeson, associate vice president for academic affairs at Longwood University in Virginia.

[Learn how to land an internship after freshman year of college.]

For instance, students can learn what type of work culture they prefer and if they’re in the right field through internships, she says.

Interns can explore careers and stay in the campus rhythm, community and culture, which can be more difficult if they leave school to work for a year, she says.

But the trade-off of leaving campus could be a financial advantage.

Co-ops can help families offset some college costs since students are working full time and may have more money to contribute, experts say.

Depending on the institution, students may not be charged for tuition while they’re participating in a co-op, though they’d have to pay for room and board if they decide to stay on campus. Students should verify how participating in a co-op will affect their student benefits, such as meal plans, housing or financial aid, since that may vary by institution.

Large corporations typically offer co-ops, but co-ops aren’t an option for everyone, says Laurie McIntosh, director of membership at the Society for Human Resource Management.

“A co-op might be limited based on the type of work they want to go in. You might not get that type of opportunity in all professions,” she says.

Co-ops are common in engineering and technology but options do exist in business, liberal arts and other career fields, experts say. Hartwig says that co-ops can be really beneficial for students who, like her, are in more creative fields.

“It really bolsters up your confidence when you go into an interview and you know that you have experience and firsthand knowledge to back you up,” she says. “I’m walking away from college with a portfolio from three different companies with press releases, different marketing materials that I’ve created.”

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

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Understand the Differences Between a Co-op, Internship originally appeared on usnews.com

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